Modi’s Balochistan gamble: Bad portents for Indo-Pak relations and worse for Baloch struggle

Modi has announced the opening of a new chapter on relations with Pakistan. It does not read well, and it has discredited the Baloch struggle.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Updated: August 16, 2016 10:36:04 am
narendra Modi, Modi, Independence day, Independence day 2016, Modi, PM Modi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Modi independence day, Pm Modi independence day, Red fort, Pm Modi red fort, Modi speech, Pm Modi speech, Modi independence day speech, Pm Modi red fort speech, Modi government, BJP, BJP government, india news, Latest news, Indian express beyond the news Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation from the ramparts of the historical Red Fort on the Independence Day in New Delhi, India, Monday, Aug. 15, 2016.  (Source: AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks on Balochistan, Gilgit Baltistan and Pakistan occupied Kashmir at his Independence Day speech announce a new chapter in India-Pakistan relations, one that not only serves to equate Kashmir with Balochistan but also India with Pakistan. Both hold bad portents.

This is what Modi said:

“Today from the ramparts of Red Fort, I want to greet and express my thanks to some people. In the last few days, people of Balochistan, Gilgit, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir have thanked me, have expressed gratitude, and expressed good wishes for me. The people who are living far away, whom I have never seen, never met – such people have expressed appreciation for Prime Minister of India, for 125 crore countrymen. This is an honour for our countrymen.”

The remarks were a continuation of what Modi said at the all-party meet on Kashmir earlier in the week. He had said at the meet:

“Pakistan forgets that it bombs its own citizens using fighter planes. The time has come when Pakistan shall have to answer to the world for the atrocities committed by it against people in Balochistan and PoK.”

And,

“Ministry of External Affairs should make efforts to approach the people of PoK residing in different parts of world and collect information about the miserable conditions in PoK and bring them to the knowledge of the world community.”.

Baloch liberation activists immediately thanked Modi for extending his support to them.

Whether or not Modi’s words mean that the gloves are now off and that Indian policy on Pakistan is to now officially include fomenting unrest in Balochistan, and PoK remains unclear but this is the impression that has now gone out to the world.

Read | One stroke of midnight and two futures: India and Pakistan chose differently

India, which has made a case in every international fora that Pakistan sponsors terrorism in Kashmir, has laid itself open to a similar charge vis a vis Balochistan and other areas of Pakistan.

Until now, New Delhi, despite its own mistakes in Kashmir, had managed to keep a high moral ground over Pakistan when it came to cross-border terrorism. Years of diplomacy and evidence gathering had gone into convincing the world that Pakistani terrorist groups, with recruits from the southern parts of the Pakistan province of Punjab, were being trained in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to launch attacks in Jammu & Kashmir and the rest of India.

Pakistan has maintained all along that India meddles in Balochistan and funds the Baloch Liberation Army. Pakistanis also believe that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which targets Pakistani citizens and security forces, are supported by Indian intelligence agencies. For years, Pakistan has pointed to the Indian consulates in Afghan border towns as launching pads for alleged Indian-backed terrorist activities in Pakistan. But apart from absurdly declaring that the terrorists it caught or killed were not circumcised — thus not Muslim and therefore RAW’s covert army — and that weapons seized from them had Indian markings, it was never able to furnish solid evidence to support its claims.

Indeed, when the ill-fated India-Pakistan Anti-Terrorism Mechanism set up in 2006 met for the first and last time in 2007, Pakistan handed over a dossier with “evidence” of the Indian hand in Balochistan. It consisted of a 100 press clippings in a Sindhi nationalist newspaper whose owner lived in Delhi, and a photograph of an Indian High Commission official at a London meeting of Baloch separatists. With a dossier like that, even if India was engaging in covert activities in Pakistan, it was able to laugh off the claims.

Though the circumstances behind the April 2016 arrest of Kulbhushan Jadhav remain unclear, it was Pakistan’s first real opportunity to change the optics. Pakistan claimed that the ex-Indian Navy man, no less than a high-ranking commodore, was in fact a serving officer and that he had been caught in Balochistan. Pakistan said he was behind several terrorist bombings in that restive province. India retaliated by giving a Baloch activist settled in the U.S, Naeela Qadir, a visa to visit India. She toured Delhi and Chandigarh, holding press conferences and speaking to the strategic community. That India was preparing to take a more aggressive line on Balochistan first came to light when last year, a Baloch activist living in New Delhi since 2009 came out in the open and addressed a public meeting in the capital about the Baloch struggle. But now with a few hundred words during his Independence Day speech and at the all-party meeting, the Prime Minister has himself owned this policy, giving Pakistan a huge helping hand to drive home its Indian-hand claim about the Baloch struggle. Perhaps worse than this is that in one swoop, Modi has discredited the struggle’s indigenous moorings.

Read | Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech: Fighting talk, but no battle plan

Modi’s remarks are hardly the language that an NSG aspirant, let alone a Security Council aspirant should be using but clearly Modi’s advisers on these issues think otherwise. Even if New Delhi now claims that it is offering only diplomatic support to the “oppressed people” of Balochistan, that claim will be treated exactly in the same way that the world treats Pakistan’s profession of “diplomatic support to the people of Kashmir”.

While those in India who call for a more “muscular” Pakistan policy applaud from the front rows, here are a few reality-checks on Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan occupied Kashmir:

There was a time when India did not want the “B” word mentioned with the “K” word as it was Pakistan that was intent on equalising “terrorism” in Balochistan with India’s allegation of cross-border terror in Kashmir. Putting the two together in a joint statement in 2009 led to outrage in the BJP, unnerved Manmohan Singh and led to his abandonment by the Congress. After Modi’s remarks, Pakistan will throw back “terrorism” in Balochistan every time India brings up Mumbai 2008, or Pathankot 2016, or cross-border terrorism in general.

What is done is done, but New Delhi hopefully knows that the struggle in Balochistan is not the same as the Kashmir problem.

Kashmir is contested between India and Pakistan and divided between the two countries. Balochistan’s problem dates back to a dodgy accession forced on the Khan of Kalat by a newly formed Pakistan, but there is no other country involved. In that sense, it is more like the Naga movement for secession than the “azadi” movement in Kashmir.

What if China, with whom Pakistan has an evergreen relationship, pledges support for the Naga cause in the same way that India has promised to take up Balochistan? Also, India once carried out bombings in Mizoram, just as Modi has accused Pakistan of doing now.

As for Gilgit Baltistan, they are unhappy about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor because of environmental concerns, and how the regions rich natural resources may get plundered, but being united with India is not on their wish-list. What Gilgit-Baltistan wants most is to become Pakistan’s “fifth province” so that it has the same constitutional rights, guarantees and privileges that the other four — Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa – enjoy. A majority of the people in G-B are Shia, so they also fear for their lives at the hands of terroists driven by Sunni extremism, but believe that once they become a province, they can better secure their lives. At the very least, G-B wants the same constitutional status that Pakistan Occupied Kashmir enjoys in Pakistan. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan have family connections in the Kargil region, but zero connect with New Delhi. There is no cause here for New Delhi to lobby except to claim that this region is part of undivided Jammu & Kashmir.

Read | Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech: PM throws down Balochistan gauntlet

As for Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, there is no popular unrest there. There were a few protest by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf , that it did not win any seats in last month’s elections, but Khan is now famous for declaring every election rigged when he does not win seats. Even discounting the fact that the ruling party in Islamabad always wins elections in PoK, Nawaz Sharif’s party, Pakistan Muslim League (N) won a landslide victory, taking 32 out of 42 seats. The military has an iron grip over PoK affairs, but much as India might wish, there is no people’s movement against this. Most people living in PoK think of themselves as Pakistanis, and many of them have become Punjabi-fied.

If Modi’s remarks mean that the gloves are indeed off, then the stage js now set for move and counter-move, not necessarily of the diplomatic kind, locking the two nuclear-armed neighbour in enmity forever.

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